Beyond Afghan Star: A Talk with Filmmaker Havana Marking

The documentary Afghan Star was in theaters in the summer of 2009 then aired on HBO this past spring 2010, with repeated screenings throughout March and April. Hailed by Oprah Winfrey as “A fantastic documentary about a talent competition in a country where you would never dream such a thing is possible” and World Cinema winner at the 2009 Sundance Festival, the film documents the dramatic stories, considerable struggles and heartwarming personal victories of Tolo TV’s Afghan Star, a contest first filmed in Kabul in 2005 which somehow managed to rewrite the rules in Afghanistan.

Filmmaker Marking went back after the film was released for a cinematic follow up to one of the most exciting, courageous and entertaining contestant on Afghan Star, Setara. Her story, one that inspires women everywhere to always keep their heads up high in the face of what life can throw at them sometimes, is documented in a short film now being aired on HBO. Titled Silencing The Song: An Afghan Fallen Star, Marking’s latest is also a must-watch, but only if you have first caught Afghan Star. If not, make sure to rent it on DVD first and you’ll be treated to a touching documentary, one you will never forget! Then, go ahead and watch the follow up…

I caught up with filmmaker Havana Marking when Afghan Star first aired on HBO and she is a woman who is at once charismatic, incredibly insightful and magnificently humble. Her work speaks for herself, but this is a bit of icing on the cake, from her lips to your eyes!

E. Nina Rothe: Can you talk about your background? Where were you born, where did you grow up, what drew you to filmmaking?

Havana Marking: I was conceived in Cuba, was born and bred in London. We travelled a lot, mostly to Asia, and many of my earliest memories are on the road somewhere or other. My mother was a journalist/filmmaker and so I grew up with it. I made my first very short film with her when I was six or so.

ENR: What made you decide to direct?

HM: I worked in mainstream British TV for 10 years, working up through the ranks. I always wanted to direct but the big decision was figuring out that I wanted to leave the mainstream and make an independent feature. That was the scary bit, but ultimately the most rewarding.

ENR: You have a very specific connection with Afghanistan. Can you share it?

HM: My father had travelled there in the 1960s -- if you haven’t gathered by now, my parents were wonderful hippies -- and always talked about it. The images from that period were so epic, but all my life it was a no-go area. I always longed to go.

ENR: What brought you to this project?

HM: I was trying to find a project that would take me to Afghanistan. I had a great friend working out there and she kept telling me how amazing it was. Through her I talked to a journalist who told me about the show Afghan Star. I knew instantly it would work and that it was perfect for me.

ENR: What were you hoping to achieve with this film and has that come true?

HM: After 2001, Islam and Afghanistan were being misrepresented in the majority of world press and I always wanted to change that. To show the other, moderate side. Likewise, I knew the youth of Afghanistan were being ignored. I hope that the film does show a different and much more complex side of the place and the religion.

ENR: What were some of the opinions you heard when you first decided to make this film, from both your inner circle and colleagues?

HM: I was in awe of Pop Idol when it started on British TV. Of course now X-Factor is pretty tedious, but at the beginning there was nothing else like it. It absolutely represented the British population: rich, poor, North, South, black, white -- all their hopes and aspirations. Whether you liked those aspirations was up to you but as a national thermometer it was incomparable. I remember saying so at a documentary festival and was practically ostracized! In the same way, when I first told people about the idea, quite a few were horrified and asked “Why would you celebrate something so awful?” Luckily, enough people got it and the film was made!

ENR: How did you get funding for making the film?

HM: I got development funding from the C4 Britdoc Foundation (who support new directors) and the CBA DFID fund. I went on my own for a month and shot a taster tape, More4 True Stories came in and funded the project.

ENR: What kind of crew did you have while in Afghanistan?

HM: A British cameraman, Phil Stebbing -- who also did the sound -- an Afghan translator, driver and bodyguard.  My bodyguard was also a champion wrestler and so everyone loved him and wanted him in their house. We often slipped in on his shirttails.  We co-produced the film with an Afghan TV company Tolo [where the show Afghan Star was aired] and so there were various people on their staff who helped produce from the office.

ENR: What were some of the challenges you faced while filming Afghan Star?

HM: The logistics of filming in a war zone with no guaranteed electricity, flights, etc were what made it difficult. Plus, you could only film in safe areas – we didn’t go to Kandahar, for example, where one of my characters was from because it was dangerous for us but even more importantly it was dangerous for her to be seen with Westerners there.  We gave her a handycam and she was able to film some stuff for us.

Afghanistan is very volatile and problems can flare up in odd areas at any time. There was a warlord who suddenly freaked out in the North-West and we had to cancel a shoot as his local militia were on the rampage there. He wasn’t Taliban, in fact he was part of the government, so you never knew what was about to happen. Luckily, because we were working with Tolo TV we had access to all information from their news teams. Day to day it affected us because we couldn’t really plan anything in advance due to kidnap threats. We just had to turn up and drink lots of tea and hope the person would agree to filming. However I wouldn’t change that… I think in the end that is what has created the energy and spontaneity in the film.

ENR: Being a woman director, how did that help you while filming Afghan Star and how did it create obstacles?

HM: As a western woman you are afforded freedoms a local woman would never get and can get access to both the men and women there. So, in many ways you have an advantage. A male director would have had a very hard time filming the women I did. Sometimes too it was tricky for me to be on the street, just because I drew so much attention. I could never ever be considered Afghan (pale skin, red hair) and in one place when the people were upset about Setara we decided that I would go and sit in a safe café while my translator and Phil asked the questions. Phil looks Afghan which is perfect!

ENR: What was the most exciting moment in this whole process of making and distributing Afghan Star? And the most frustrating?

HM: The process of making the film in Afghanistan was exciting throughout. I think I probably cried, laughed, was frightened and inspired on a daily basis. In terms of the distribution, I have to say the whole Sundance thing was incredible. It was just thrilling -- and so unexpected. We’ve been very lucky and I don’t think there is really anything that frustrating … expect perhaps how slowly it takes for any money to be made. Luckily, we never really expected to make any anyway.

ENR: Can you share your favorite audience reaction to the film?

HM: One Sundance screening was extraordinary. We had a fifteen-minute standing ovation in a huge cinema. Daoud Sediqi [the producer and presenter of the show Afghan Star] was there too and it was brilliant to see him get the recognition he deserves.

ENR: You follow four very fascinating personalities in the film. And of course, Daoud Sediqi. Did you know from the very beginning those you wanted to follow? And how did you decide?

HM: It was a mixture of choosing good characters with interesting background stories and observing what was going on in the show’s process. A few very interesting contestants that I focused on at the start were dismissed from the show early on and so I couldn’t use them. Setara became the main character when she danced on stage -- there the film completely changes and as she realises the implications of her actions,  the reality of modern-day Afghanistan is revealed to the film’s audience. Luckily, people who want to be on a TV show were likely to agree to be in my film. The amazing access we got however was that to their families. It is very rare to film inside an Afghan home with all the women. Setara’s family were so proud of her despite the danger that they let us in and allowed us to film incredibly intimate moments.

ENR: Your film certainly highlighted a lot of the issues faced by Afghan youth in the ever-conservative Islamic country. Not everyone must have been happy about that… We see some of the strife faced by the female contestants in your film. But what happened after the cameras left? For example, can you talk about where Daoud Sediqi is today, as well as Lima and Setara, and what they are doing now?

HM: Daoud is now in the US  - he was granted political asylum and now works as a DJ on VOA. Lima’s whereabouts are unknown -- it’s rumoured she left for Pakistan. Setara is now again in Kabul, although she had left Afghanistan to make songs in neighbouring Tajikistan.

ENR: When will audiences be able to see the short film you have been working on about Setara’s progress since AS? How do you plan to distribute it?

HM: I have just filmed an update short with Setara. It is ultimately a very sad film… I can’t watch it anymore in fact. Setara went back to Afghanistan when she discovered she was pregnant. There were huge complications with the birth -- Afghanistan has virtually no healthcare. The short film will screen on HBO. I’m not sure after that.

ENR: Now, a very brief round of quick-fire questions. East or West?

HM: Both have their good and bad.

ENR: NGO or documentary?

HM: Depends on the quality of each. There are some amazing NGO’s and some amazing docs. But there are a lot of rubbish ones too.

ENR: Reality show or political rally?

HM: Either if the heart’s in the right place.

ENR: Strength or pride?

HM: I’m afraid I can’t answer these as you’d hope! Can’t answer…

ENR: Directing or producing?

HM: Can’t have one without the other.

ENR: The one person who represents elegance to you?

HM: My mother.

ENR: What is your favorite music track at the moment?

HM: Sonny’s Lettah by Linton Kwesi Johnson and We are London by Madness.

ENR: And what book are you reading?

HM: The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I am almost faint with heart break.

All images courtesy of Zeitgeist Films and HBO

Excerpts of this interview originally published as: http://news.avstv.com/2010/03/11/havana-marking-talks-about-afghan-star-spontaneity-and-true-elegance/ in March 2010

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